Thursday, December 12, 2013

Spending Time with some "Old" Friends

I used to really like Zinfandel, once upon a time. In fact, there would occasionally be a bottle I would love. I can't say that it was ever my favorite variety, but there was much to admire about this gutsy wine.

Trouble was, Zinfandel became pretty boring to me. I'm sure some of this had to do with me moving towards Italian wines, which in most cases offer higher acidity, red or white. But it also had to do with the prevailing winds in California during the 1990s and even to this day, to some degree. This big wine became a bear, often wild and untamed in its approach. Alcohol levels, which were high to start with - simply became unacceptable as far as serving this wine at the dinner table. Yes, proper ripeness for a Zinfandel in warm climes in California - 15% and 15% were standard - soon inched up to 16%, 16.5%, even 17% in some cases, as new strains of yeast had been developed to make this possible. Clearly, bigger is better was the mantra for Zinfandel (and a lot of Cabernet Sauvignons, but that's a story for another day); of course, as these higher alcohol wines were flashier and often resulted in higher scores from a few influential wine magazines, it because a situation of follow the leader. Well, I stopped following.

So how nice to report that not every producer of Zinfandel in California went that way. Last week, I tasted two new releases from Dry Creek Vineyards in Healdsburg, in the heart of Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. The two wines were the 2011 Heritage Vines Zinfandel (Sonoma County) and the 2011 Old Vines Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley). The common theme in these wines were older vines and not percentage of alcohol or intensity; clearly the Dry Creek Vineyard folks have their priorities straight.

The Heritage Clone story is a marvelous one, in that winery owner David Stare (he founded DCV in 1972 when Dry Creek Valley was little more than prune orchards and a few family farms) grafted old-vine budwood onto new rootstock, thus giving new plantings the foundation or "heritage" of classic old vine Zinfandel. The first vintage of this Heritage Clone Zinfandel was 1997; the wine is now known as Heritage Vines Zinfandel.

My tasting notes describe perfumes of raspberry, black cherry, tar and anise - classic stuff! Medium-full on the palate, the tannins are medium-weight (thank you!) and the oak is well integrated (thank you again!). The wine has very nice varietal character and impressive balance; as you drink this, you don't get the idea that you're being hit over the head. No, this is about pleasure and what a nice food wine this is, be it pastas with marinara or bolognese sauce, grilled ribs or even pizza. By the way, this wine tasted even better the second and even the third night. At a suggested retail price of $19, this is an excellent value.

As for the Old Vines Zinfandel from 2011, the front label has text that reads "Vine Age - 90 years plus." I think it's great that it's right there upfront for the consumer to see and I like the fact that the principals at the winery - first Dave Stare and now his daughter Kim and son-in-law Don Wallace - have always tried to emphasize the "old" in old vine. This term is not legally defined in California, so old, as far as vine age, is whatever the winery chooses to call it. Stare was always pushing for a definition of this - he wants old vines to refer to plantings that are at least 50 years of age - and anyone who's tasted a Zinfandel made from vines that are at least a half of a century old knows the character that age can bring to the wine.

The 2011 Old Vines Zin (83% Zinfandel and 17% Petite Sirah, basically the same blend as in the Heritage Vines Zin) has aromas of blackberry, prune (typical of very old vines) and purple iris. Medium-full, this has an elegant finish with medium-weight tannins and balanced acidity. This is a wine of restraint - notice a theme here for Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandels? - and again, a lovely wine for food (pork roast would be ideal); enjoy this over the next 5-7 years. This is a more limited production, as you might imagine, so the price is higher (the yield is an incredibly small 1-2 tons per acre!), but at $30, you're getting your money's worth as far as quality and you're drinking history!

Keep up the good work at Dry Creek Vineyards, everyone! We need more refined Zinfandels such as these!

Note: One final story. I go back quite a few years with Dave Stare, meeting him in the mid-1980s in Chicago at a distributor where I sold his wines. I always liked Dave's slightly irreverent style, as he never took himself too seriously and often drew attention away from himself, directing it to his wines or his team at Dry Creek that helped him craft these products.

One of my favorite memories of him (and for many of us in the wine business in the 1980s) was a television commercial Dave did for Augsburger beer, a wonderful Midwestern brew (sadly, no more) made in a classic pilsener style. I don't recall all the details, but in the ad, he was introduced and asked to speak about the beer in wine terms. He held up a glass, inhaled the aromas and declared, "Hops dominate the nose." Great stuff and pure Dave Stare!

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